I paused for a glass of freshly squeezed orange juice – a bargain at just 4 dirhams (2Qp) – and noticed the cameras flashing from the rooftop terraces surrounding the square. Most owners of these loftier establishments capitalise on their bird’s-eye views by insisting patrons order (poor and pricey) food to secure a table during the busy twilight hours. But while the higher floors are almost entirely filled with tourists, the cafes at ground level are more the domains of local men discussing politics and watching the theatrics of life unfold. I joined them for a nightcap, raising my tiny glass of sweet mint tea to a cheap – and very cheerful – day.
Bargain beds – Some things are worth splashing out on, principally where you choose to lay your head. There’s no shortage of cheap accommodation in Marrakech, most of which is concentrated in the modern neighbourhood of Gueliz, west of the medina. A double room in a perfectly fine three-star hotel will cost around 400 dirhams (£29) but it won’t be a place that gets your pulse racing. And the taxi rides to the medina are tiresome. More than anything, though, I wanted the full Moroccan experience and that meant staying in a riad, a traditional Moroccan house arranged around a central courtyard.
With more than 1,000 riad-hotels in the medina alone, competition is high, and there are options for most budgets. I opted for the tricky-to-find but lovely Riad Al Jazira, located down winding alleys in the heart of the old walled city. Instantly won over by its private hammam (steam bath), rooftop terrace, intricate latticework and cosy Berber blankets, the reasonable price of £72 a night only added to its appeal.
Beyond the city limits – Being in the thick of the action, mere steps from the souk and the square, was thrilling – but it was also nice to escape it. The road south left Marrakech, passing dusty suburbs and private ‘beach clubs’ with tempting swimming pools shaded by tall palms. Barely an hour later, 1 was crossing the biblical Asni Valley where brown foothills rose to become the mighty snow-capped Atlas Mountains. Standing proudly among them, the tallest soldier in the line-up was 4,167m Mount Toubkal, the highest peak in North Africa.
On the steep cliff’s outside the window, a serene scene of lemon groves, saffron farms and blossoming almond trees materialised. Smoke billowed from the chimneys of simple stone houses, lorded over by the local mosque. Donkeys navigated the rocky trails while children with Barbie backpacks skipped home. Our driver pointed towards a road that disappeared into views you couldn’t put a price on. Up there, he said, in those perfect hills overlooking the lush valley, was lofty Kasbah Tamadot, Richard Branson’s Moroccan retreat. The cheapest room goes for a mere 4,750 dirhams (£350) a night; the Master Suite 21,100 dirhams (£1,560). Perhaps a splurge too far…